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Killer course: Students act like soldiers to answer the question, ‘Why do we kill in war?’

They wore body armour fashioned from cardboard and helmets that looked more like highway cones. Some carried rifles laser cut from plywood stencils. No one was going to mistake Lecture Hall 4 in HKU’s Chong Yuet Ming Chemistry Building for a Hollywood backlot.  

‘It’s a good day to die,’ one student shouts, ‘A good day to die!’

But what the students in the Spring 2016 Common Core course ‘Killing Stories: A Search for Truth in the Narratives of War’ lacked in both budget and acting skills, they made up for with commitment—the commitment to learn whether humans were born to kill or just got really good at it.

‘Neither answer is particularly comforting,’ said JMSC Associate Professor Kevin Sites, a former war correspondent who created the class. ‘But it’s essential we understand our legacy for organised destruction that may have begun with our human ancestors and isn’t stopping anytime soon.’


Ibrar Mohammed, fourth year Bachelor of English (minor in Journalism) student, plays Mongol Emperor Chingiss Khan

The course examined everything from the killing strategies of Chinese General Sun Tzu and Mongol Emperor Chinggis Khan to the use of assassination by the ancient Shia Shadow Warriors known as the Hashashin, as well as the modern US Navy SEALs. Sites also shared some of his own personal experiences, including a video he took of the execution of an Iraqi insurgent during fighting in the city of Al-Fallujah in 2004.

The immersion, however, came through the final project assignments in which teams of students wrote, directed and performed one-act plays exploring how soldiers might have reacted before facing each other in historic battles like the Chinese Communist and Kuomintang clash at Huaihai, and the Union and Confederate force’s battle at Gettysburg in the US Civil War.

Teaching Assistant Sharron Fast came up with the idea for the plays and nurtured the sometimes stage-shy students through the course until their performance during the last two class sessions of the semester.

‘For the final assignment, I really wanted to engage students with the materials in a more profound way than a traditional examination would offer,’ Fast said. ‘Producing a dramatic performance also requires numerous skillsets beyond just acting, from screenplay writing to set design and directing, and having a variety of roles meant that every student played an important part in bringing the course to life on the stage.’


Students act as members of the US forces during the Second Battle of Fallujah, 2004: (left to right) ‘Private Jack’ – Olivia Chan Ying Tung, ‘Private Rebecca’ – Mok Sing Ying, ‘Private Clinton’ – Lee Uen Ying, ‘Sergeant Niki’ – Wong Hoi Shuen

Feedback from students on the course was positive, with many emphasising the way that it brought them closer to the issues of warfare and describing the final play assignment as a rewarding experience.

‘Killing Stories showed me the human side of war I never had the chance to see in history classes,’ said Fergus Tam, a first-year Bachelor of Laws student. Krithiga Ravichandran, a fourth-year Electronic and Communications Engineering student said ‘Writing the script and performing the war drama was wickedly fun yet super challenging … the more we learned about war, the more we came to respect it.’

Sites and Fast will teach the course again in Spring 2017, revising the syllabus to include lectures on soldiers’ use of drugs to both enable killing and self-medicate in the aftermath, and look at female warriors and why males dominate the business of killing.

The Common Core is the series of six courses across four Areas of Inquiry that all HKU undergraduates are required to take.

Watch a clip of the performances below: